IT is a slice of Georgian elegance in the heart of the Scottish capital, held up as an architectural masterpiece deserving of the status of a World Heritage site.

Yet behind the grandeur of Edinburgh's New Town there lurks a sinister past, with the greed and injustice which gave rise to its splendid terraces carefully hidden from view.

However, now the forgotten history of one of the country's most celebrated marvels is beginning to be told, thanks to a new exhibition which raises awkward questions about the role the slave trade played in its foundation.

Leading Jamaican-born academic and human rights campaigner Sir Geoff Palmer, Emeritus Professor in the School of Life Sciences at Heriot-Watt University and also Scotland's first black professor, has given stinging critique in an interview with The Herald on how "slavery is the history of the New Town", down to how it shaped individual homes.


Jamaican plantation. Getty Images

He said James Craig and Robert Adam's streets were partly owned by slave plantation owners or funders, with often hundreds of slaves in their keep.

He said: "After emancipation in 1833, people were given compensation (for the loss of slaves) because officially the slaves were property.

"If you look at the New Town, on the compensation list you will find various areas like India Street, Albany Street, Forth Street and nearby Rodney Street.

"For example, when you look at one building you would think it is just an ordinary house.

"But when you look at it carefully, which I have - and it is on the compensation list - the person there who received money for their slaves is the only house that has a balcony."

He said: "If you go to another, also on the compensation list, it has two doors to the one house.

"It is not just that a lot of the houses in the New Town are on the compensation list, those which are on the compensation list have got appointments (fittings), have got differences - so having slaves made your house different."

The compensation list includes 320 Edinburgh addresses belonging to 148 individuals.


A kind of paradise: Parts of St Ann Parish in Jamaica are hotspots for British tourists (Image: PA)

One in Forth Street was compensated £277 for relinquishing nine slaves in Tobago, another in Albany Street received £1,996 for giving up 104 “enslaved" in Jamaica, and one Dundas Street home-owner got “£2,956 15s 6d” for 194 slaves in St Ann, a Jamaican district that was the birthplace of Bob Marley and Marcus Garvey.

In all, the British government paid out £20m to compensate about 3,000 families that owned slaves for the loss of "property" when slave-ownership was abolished - the equivalent of around £16.5bn today.

Prof Palmer said much of the management of slave funds would have come under the head of one of the biggest banks, the former first Lord of the Admiralty - who is commemorated on the 150ft plinth in the city's St Andrew Square, itself the subject of discussions on adding a plaque outlining his slavery connections - Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville.


Slave ship. Getty Images

He said: "The one we all know about is Dundas, because he was a politician, but he is significant because he controlled and managed the people who would have had property in the New Town.

"He was the governor of the Bank of Scotland. He was funding slavery. He was the great patronage giver.

"Dundas proposed that slavery should be gradually abolished.

"Dundas did that in order to counteract those people who wanted immediate abolition.

"Some historians said he wasn’t a bad guy because he wanted to do it gradually so that was better.

"It’s not.

"It was a deception.

"This was how he protected the people who lived in the New Town."


New Town. Image: Gordon Terris

Prof Palmer said: "My view - and I know the present viscount - is that I don’t want the statue to be taken down or damaged, because once you start removing things, that’s removing the evidence, and you remove the deed.

"I would like to see the truth of what was done on the plaque; that he was the proponent of gradual abolition of slavery that kept the trade going for 15 years longer than it should."

He added: "What that means was 42,000 slaves who were transported each year by Britain would not have been.

"That is the history of the New Town."


Henry Dundas was ultimately impeached over misappropriation of public money.

The Edinburgh World Heritage Trust said the Tron Kirk exhibition, which also highlights Scotland’s other five World Heritage Sites, sets out the formal reasons for the city’s Unesco inscription, but also "challenges residents and visitors to think differently about the city and consider some uncomfortable questions".

These include the absence of women in the city’s many grand statues and monuments and whether we are doing enough to conserve the authenticity of the site.

The story is told in a series of videos, quotes, and specially commissioned portraits from award-winning Scottish photographer Alicia Bruce.